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Interpreting Postsecular Conflicts in Modern Societies

by Kristina Stoeckl

Excerpt from: Kristina Stoeckl, 2020. "Introduction: What Are Postsecular Conflicts?" In In Postsecular Conflicts. Debating Tradition in Russia and the United States edited by Dmitry Uzlaner Kristina Stoeckl, 7-22. Innsbruck University Press. DOI: 10.15203/3187-99-3-02 This excerpt was prepared by Vera Pozzi.

Secularization has changed the social position of religion. Modern societies no longer conceive of human coexistence as regulated by divine commands, but as the result of autonomous collective self-determination. In the secular age in which we live, multiple religious creeds are on offer and unbelief has become, for many, the default option. Moreover, since the societal changes usually subsumed under the label of “1968” took place, European societies have become internally highly diverse in terms of worldviews, religions, and everyday ways of life. 

If the pluralism of modern societies is the result of their history, what attitude can individuals as historical agents develop in this regard? Political philosophy distinguishes two trends in the attitudes of people vis-à-vis the pluralism of their societies. The first is a conservative stance that views changes in society with suspicion and sees old, predefined structures as guarantors of social unity. The second is a progressive stance, which welcomes change and would like to throw the burden of what is old overboard in favor of diversity. Reflecting on the issue of pluralism in modern societies, Jürgen Habermas – the political philosopher who represents postsecular political liberalism in the German speaking countries – talks about a “postsecular society”, i.e. a pluralist society that is no longer governed by just one worldview that is always right and determines the political and social horizon, but one that must bring diverse ideas about what a “good life” is actively into accord. He advocates a “complementary learning process” based on the readiness of religious citizens to translate their views into a language comprehensible to non-religious people and on the willingness of secular citizens to really pay attention to what their religious co-citizens have to say. But how realistic, how viable is this vision of postsecular society? Against Habermas, one could argue that there already exists a sociological model that conceptualizes the moral and religious diversity of modern societies, only in less consensual terms: the model described in James D. Hunter’s classical study Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America (1991). Where Habermas’s idea of postsecular society highlights consensus, the culture wars model highlights conflict. This article is not the place to settle the question whether conflicts over values in modern pluralistic societies always take the form of a postsecular consensus or a culture war. Instead, what we try to do, is to define in greater detail the conditions of these conflicts. 

Postsecular conflicts are conflicts over values in modern pluralistic societies and they are characterized by four features. First, they revolve around the definition of explicit and implicit norms and therefore they arise when it comes to codifying norms into laws. One example that illustrates this fact very well is the question of “marriage for all” – we will briefly recall her the debate that this issue rose in Germany in 2017. All the parliament did was to change the wording of article 1353 of the German Civil Code from “marriage is entered into for life. The spouses have a mutual duty of conjugal community” to “marriage is entered into by two people of different or the same sex for life.” Article 6 of the German Constitution grants marriage and the family special protection by the state. It does not mention explicitly that only a man and a woman can marry, but when it came into force in 1949, this was self-evident. Representatives of the Christliche Demokratische Union and the Christlich-Soziale Union in particular voiced concerns before the vote that the change might be unconstitutional. German legal experts had to answer the following question: What was the deeper, implicit meaning of the article of the German constitution that grants special protection to marriage and the family: a heterosexual relationship, the procreation of offspring, or simply mutual solidarity? In short, the German example goes to show that in the process of the so called “norm diffusion”, the explicit and implicit norms of living together in society, which reflect a largely unquestioned status quo rooted in history, are being challenged.

The second feature of postsecular conflicts is that there are no obvious or direct ways of resolving them. In situations where a generally valid solution to moral or religious conflicts is not possible, the commonly applied political answer is exemptions. The best known type of exemption is the right to refuse an action on grounds of conscience. And nevertheless, in contemporary postsecular conflicts, the instrument of “exemptions” encounters two kinds of limits. The first limit is set by those who are supposed to profit from the exemptions because they want to give shape to the political and legal system as such, as would be the case of claims to outlaw abortions in a country where medical personnel have the right to refuse to conduct abortions on grounds of conscience. The second limit to exemptions, however, is nowadays set by the majority as well, who are less and less prepared to accept exemptions. It takes a certain amount of tolerance among members of the majority to accept that people in their midst may refuse to perform certain acts or activities for conscientious reasons.

The third feature of postsecular conflicts is that they are transnational. This issue has also been the focus of the Postsecular Conflicts project, which has investigated the role of transnational norm entrepreneurs in areas such as family values, anti-abortion mobilization, or homeschooling. Transnational actors that appeal to international courts, like the European Court of Human Rights, influence domestic politics, including causes on both the progressive and the conservative agenda.

This was the case with a strictly observant Christian family that refused to comply with the German law on compulsory schooling. Instead, they claimed to have the right of choosing homeschooling and found legal support with two US-based advocacy groups that are active on a transnational level, the Alliance Defending Freedom and the Home School Legal Defense Association, which took the case to the European Court of Human Rights. The advocates contended, among other things, that the fact that homeschooling is formally recognized as a right in the vast majority of countries that are party to the European Convention of Human Rights means that this right should exist in Germany also. The example makes clear, first, that religious and moral conflicts that concern only small minorities in domestic contexts can acquire international significance through the work of transnational advocacy groups and, second, that norm diffusion mechanisms like strategic litigation, commonly associated with the American culture wars and the court system in the United States, have become a global strategy.

The fourth point to be made about postsecular conflicts is that they are not conflicts between secular and religious worldviews, but between liberal-progressive positions and conservative-traditionalist positions. As a matter of fact, religious arguments in the public sphere range from liberal-progressive to conservative-traditionalist positions. On some issues, for example, social justice, liberal-progressive religious actors will have more in common with secular liberals than with conservative-traditionalist religious actors. 

Moreover, the large body of the interviews conducted in the Postsecular Conflicts project allows us to trace the coordinate system of the “conservative mind” that emerges in what we called “postsecular conflicts” and the way it has changed since the time of the Cold War. The coordinates have, firstly, shifted from left to liberal. While the main antagonist for a thinker in the politically right and conservative camp during the Cold War was the leftist (Marxist, Communist), it is now the “liberal”, even though conservatives, on the whole, endorse liberal economic ideas. The European context, however, has its own features: the identification of Marxism and liberalism belonged here to the ideology of the Far Right, and it owes more to Carl Schmitt and Martin Heidegger than to concrete struggles between social conservatives and social progressives on questions of public morality in the post–World War II years. The coordinates have, secondly, shifted from the West to the East, to Russia. American conservatives’ fascination with Russia is based on admiration for the unbridled Russian disdain for political correctness and the robust defense of Orthodox privileges inside the Russian state over and against minority rights. And this admiration is paradoxical, because the country restricts not only the freedoms of LGBTQ+ people, but also of minority faiths. The coordinates have, thirdly, shifted from religion to tradition. Religious teachings are evaluated on their conservative and traditionalist and not evangelical or theological credentials. The exact meaning of “tradition” and “traditional values,” however, is only vaguely defined in today’s conservative discourse: it comprises a heterosexual family model, patriarchy, conservative social mores, and anti-modernist content from Christian teaching. The coordinates have, fourthly, shifted from democracy to authority. While conservatives during the Cold War defended democracy over and against autocracy, which was associated with the USSR (and also against critics from the left who saw in Western democracy a hegemonic project), the conservatives of the twenty-first century no longer trust democracy. 

To summarize: we conclude that postsecular conflicts can be “mapped” in two different ways. The first intellectual map is the one behind the concept of the culture wars. It is a map in black and white, which traces an unbridgeable antagonism between a conservative coordinate system of anti-liberalism, the East, authority, and tradition, and a liberal coordinate system of liberalism, the West, democracy, and secularism. It expresses an antagonism between two public moralities, between two social “sacreds” that cannot be reconciled and that are bound to clash. The second intellectual map is the one behind Habermas’s concept of postsecular society. This map is different, it comes in a varied range of colors and shades and it outlines the different areas of possible overlaps between these two coordinate systems. The former map is not wrong; it can explain many of the dynamics that the Postsecular Conflicts research project has documented. But it is not exhaustive. We also need the second map in order to explain phenomena like the defense of tradition from within tradition, as exemplified by many other interlocutors that we met in our long fieldwork. They shared a specific method for developing their criticism of the conservative position, namely genealogy: in order to understand what given concepts mean today, one needs to understand where they come from and in which context they operate and unfold.

Ph. World Congress of Families XI, 2017. Budapest Congress Center © Elekes Andor from Wikimedia Commons

Kristina Stoeckl

Kristina Stoeckl

Professor of Sociology, University of Innsbruck. Coordinator of Postsecular Conflicts Research Project

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